The Black Belt Business Podcast

Creating a Culture + Setting Your Martial Arts School Up For Success

Aug 29, 2023


If you’re considering opening a martial arts school, chances are you’re driven by passion. 

However, passion without a plan can often lead to chaos, as we see in the latest episode of the Black Belt Business Podcast, where we share stories, strategies, tactiques, tools and resources that will help you establish and grow your martial arts school. 

Episode 36 brings together Eliot Marshall, Easton’s CEO and President Mike Tousignant, Vice President and Manager of General Managers Ian Lieberman, and Easton’s founder Amal Easton to talk about the evolution of the school over the last 25 years. 

Listen to the full episode on Spotify or Apple Podcasts!

As Easton Training Center prepares to launch its ninth academy in Easton Lowry, the group chats about what has changed from then to now, and what’s brought Easton to the point it’s at today. From a set curriculum to meeting agendas, core values, agreements and more, the four agree that adding structure to the way they ran class, meetings and operations was crucial to the academy’s overall success.

What do “core values” and “agreements” have in common with teaching martial arts? Learning to beat people up doesn’t take that much administrative effort, right?

That depends on where you want your school to go. We’ve found that having principles to stick to actually makes us more badass in the long run as we prioritize student and staff retention, opportunity growth and career development.

This doesn’t mean we make the martial arts “soft,” or “easy.” We still train hard and value building strong martial artists. But we also integrate the softer, lighter sides, the vulnerable underbelly that will show our students and staff we are no different than them.

“I'm a big believer of being vulnerable and being a badass,” says Mike, a black belt who has no shame when it comes to crying mid-meeting at the thought of his young kids. 

“Like for me, a lot of the stuff that drives me is like, what is gonna make me more of a badass? What can I do as a human to be tougher, to be better? What can I face every day to add some struggle in my life?”

[From Martial Arts Passion To Career: Find a Space and Fill It]

Roadmap to success

How do you set your team up for success in meetings? You create a roadmap to guide the meeting and lay the foundation for what to expect. Any meetings you have should run smoothly, productively, and efficiently. 

First, before you go into any meeting, decide on a set of agreements you’ll keep throughout. These can be things like no interrupting, assuming good intent, feelings are not facts. 

These agreements act as a roadmap that keeps us on track, as the agenda provides the road which we follow. 

Things such as assuming good intent, aka not taking things personally, allow people to freely speak with the foundational trust that their words won’t be misinterpreted. 

We're not always going to be perfect wordsmiths,” says Ian. “And sometimes when we're emotional or we're talking about something that's really important, maybe our words aren't chosen exactly or as precisely as we wish they could have in that moment. But we're always trying to. And that's the key piece.”

Like Ian points out, we're all trying to achieve very similar things. We all want to get across or as close to the finish line as we can. It’s the working-as-a-team part that will help us do it quicker, better and forever. 

At Easton, another core value we prioritize is compassion. It feeds into the trust and loyalty part because we want to show up as authentically and vulnerably as we can too.

When you're giving your feedback or you're stating your opinion, really make an effort to do it in a compassionate way that allows the person that you're speaking with to assume your good intent. This requires trust on both sides – both in trusting you can communicate your truth without repercussions and trust that the person you’re speaking to means the best.

Implementing these standards across the board with all your staff is critical. You want everyone to be on the same page so they have the same advantages and space. When you give people the space to find their strengths and their voice, you also create a stronger foundation for the company.

“I really do believe that everybody here occupies a very important role within our company," says Amal. “We have clearly defined people. So we can sit here, and it's a four legged stool. If any of us disappeared then I feel like that stool is super wobbly.

[Easton All-Staff: Creating a Career in Martial Arts]

Loyalty is a two-way street

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academies weren’t always like this. Often, they didn’t care if students stayed or left, they certainly didn’t grow them from white belt to CEO, and it took a certain kind of metal to stick around. The process self-selected only the toughest, and that honor went a long way.

Today, we still strive to uphold that battle-worn grit and teach the metal, but we also want our students to come back. This means we need to show up in such a way where we’re giving them the space they need to grow, ask questions, and take things at their own pace. Taking an approach of the servant-leader can help you show up in the way they need best, so you can help improve their Jiu Jitsu and keep more people on the mats.

Just as you, as a leader, want to approach your role with servitude to your students and staff, you also want to watch out for expecting undue loyalty from them – a big theme in martial arts with students expected to maintain unshakable loyalty to their school and teacher. 

“I personally think - and I think we all agree,” says Eliot, “it's the other way around. I think the loyalty has got to come from the school and the teacher first. It's not like, ‘Oh, you signed up here. Therefore you must be loyal to us.’ That's just wrong.”

They shouldn’t just respect us for no reason, and we don’t want them to. We first need to prove ourselves worthy of that respect and keep earning our keep every day.

Part of maintaining this loyalty includes the two-way street of communication. You don’t want a company filled with yes-men and -women. You should want employees who push back and challenge you, even if you disagree with them. The dynamic relationship and ongoing conversation you develop will benefit not just you two, but everyone else under that employee’s leadership. 

When you stop fearing conflict, you open yourself up to an entire world that can be built between the heads of two - and more - people. Your employees will go on to instill that same critical thinking in others and empower them with the confidence to bring new angles to light.

When you spend the time to develop career opportunities and invest energy into developing your existing staff in whatever ways you can, you also invest in keeping people with you long term by giving them the room to grow. This way, when life happens and kids are born, people buy homes or have unexpected emergencies, your staff wont immediately start searching for a better job. 

By prioritizing and investing in the development of your staff, you’re not just helping them with a paycheck. You’re setting them up to stand on their own two feet and giving them the space to synthesize all the skills they bring to the table. 

People can feel authenticity. When the relationship between you and your staff stops being transactional, you’ll have employees who not only respect and trust you, but want to keep growing and improving to fit the shoes you’ve given them.

When you empower people, they usually show up.

Listen to the full episode on Spotify or Apple Podcasts!

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